Both U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg looked stunned when they saw the projects completed by students at Cascadia Tech Academy in Vancouver.
Engineering students operated laser cutters with computers while others cut material with a manual lathe and a drill press. Construction students stood proudly behind a scale model of a house they designed and would soon complete for their final project. And culinary students shared their appetizing concoctions of fruit, meat, cheese and more.
“Now I understand why the congresswoman really wanted me to come here and see this,” Buttigieg said.
Perez and Buttigieg visited Cascadia Tech on Monday afternoon to highlight local career pathways in the skilled trades. They spoke with students who may end up working on projects funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law, including the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program.
Strengthening career and technical education programs is a priority for Perez, a Democrat from Skamania. She has introduced multiple pieces of legislation in Congress aimed at raising awareness of trade education programs. She hopes to encourage more young people to pursue paths in the skilled trades and understand the financial obligations of a four-year degree.
“(The trades are) a unique American asset and an American identity,” Perez said. “To elevate that again and to take pride and seriousness in that, that is how we are going to build projects that last.”
She said she wanted to bring Buttigieg to Cascadia Tech to show her constituents “how seriously we matter to folks like the secretary.”
“It’s one thing to talk about workforce readiness, but it’s another to hear directly from these young people about their aspirations and what it means to them to be getting into this work,” Buttigieg said in an interview with The Columbian. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that the strength and vitality of America’s infrastructure, and therefore America’s economy, depends a lot on the skills and the readiness and the motivation of these young people who are going to be out there for the next decade actually making these projects happen.”
Buttigieg, while speaking to students, said more infrastructure projects are underway now than in decades.
“We’re racing as a country to make sure that we have enough steel and concrete, but most importantly, to make sure we have enough people in the skilled trades,” he said.
He said programs like Cascadia Tech are what the Biden administration had in mind when pushing for the infrastructure bill.
“We know that we’re going to need these kinds of skills, this kind of talent, and we’re creating all these good-paying jobs that are really going to be the foundation for families to build generational wealth,” Buttigieg said. “This is where it all comes together.”
Interest in skilled trades has been declining over the past few years. The application rate for technical jobs, such as plumber and electrician, dropped by 49 percent between 2020 and 2022, NPR reports. The construction industry faces a gap of a half-million workers, according to Construction Dive.
Generating more interest in the trades will require a cultural reset, according to Perez and Buttigieg.
“Culturally, there’s some work to do in this country, but they’ve clearly cracked the code here at Cascadia Tech,” Buttigieg said. “What I am going to remember most is how proud these young people are, how tall they’re standing. And part of why we’re here is to celebrate that work, these skills and their choices, because America is counting on it.”
Following the tour, Perez and Buttigieg visited Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 335 to speak with members of several local unions. They will visit the Interstate 5 Bridge this morning and speak with local businesses and residents.